20
Apr
2011
My Year in Lists: Interlude
Musings on a Music Festival
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

My Year in Lists: Interlude is an intermittent addendum to the feature that takes a step back from the quest to examine music from other perspectives.

Every music festival that is ever organized has to think, at least for a minute, that it's Woodstock. That festival is so engrained in our cultural consciousness, in the way that we conceive of a music festival, that attending any festival ever will remind us of that touchstone event (an event which most of us never attended, myself included as it took place 20 years before I was born). However, right after any festival gets that idea in its head, it must be completely and summarily dismissed. No festival is Woodstock. Hell, even Woodstock wasn't Woodstock the way we have mythologized it. This, I think, is the paradox of the music festival. Everyone attending (and at least some of the people planning) are thinking, at least subtly, that they might be heading for their generation's Woodstock. Everyone is expecting all of the great music, copious amounts of narcotics, and free love mentality of the '60's will return for one glorious weekend of revelry and they will always tell the story of how they were there.

Spoiler alert: Coachella 2011 was not our generation's Woodstock. Our generation won't have a Woodstock, at least not in the way we probably conceive of it. Sure, some people in attendance threw on their best flower child impersonation, and if this were a different sort of column, I could probably examine all of the attempts to recreate the drug-induced, free-love inspired revelry of any modern music festival's forebear. But that is not what My Year in Lists is about, and rest assured, all you puritanical out there amongst my readers, that is not the point of this interlude. My Year in Lists is a musical journey (or at least I keep telling myself and my readership that), but one that is, for all intents and purposes, fairly sedentary. I am listening to a wider range of music than ever before and reporting back my findings and observations to you. Yet theoretically all of this could be done in my apartment, headphones firmly attached to my ears (to be fair to those who assume I'm some sort of agoraphobic, I often listen to the music for this column while in transit, and I also try to listen to it in different formats as opposed to just on my headphones), and I don't think that captures fairly the full experience of listening to music. A vital part of the musical experience is the concert, which provides the opportunity to listen to music you love in a starkly different context: performed live in front of your eyes and ears while you are surrounded by throngs of people who enjoy the same music as much as (if not more than) you.

The music festival experience is different than a single concert in several ways. For one thing, it's a lot longer. Since 2007 Coachella has been a three day festival, taking place from Friday to Sunday on a weekend in April. For another, you see a lot more bands at a festival than at a concert. And more likely than not, you see a few bands at a festival that you would never even consider going to see in concert, simply because there is down time between acts that you consider essential. In order to better express the experience of a music festival, and to get at the ways in which it starkly differs from the usual experience of listening to music, I took field notes whilst I was experiencing the festival. Hopefully they will shed some light on more than just what amazing bands I was able to see over the course of my three days at the festival. For those of you who were also at Coachella this year, or have been to any music festivals before, please feel free to share your thoughts!

Friday:

12:40 pm: Arrive at the venue, after not too much traffic. See the first of many banks of porta potties and immediately think about hoe vile those things will become by Sunday night.

1:30 pm: After an interminable wait for my little brother to get a Coachella T-shirt, we arrive at The Outdoor Stage in time to see the Rural Alberta Advantage while we wait for !!! to begin. [ASIDE: The Coachella venue is laid out with the Coachella Stage, the largest area where the headliners play, taking up the center space, the Outdoor Stage, where the second tier bands play, taking up the field space to the right of the Coachella Stage, and then three tents, Gobi, Mojave, and Sahara lined up on the side of the space. There is also the Oasis Dome which provides electronic music and a cool place to escape from the sun, though I never made it there during my stay. The venue is also full of large art pieces, rom sculptures to interactive work, all of which liven up the space and provide an opportunity to showcase artists who might have trouble fitting their work into a studio space.]

1:54 pm: The crowd disperses after the Rural Alberta Advantage complete their set. Though I am not all that familiar with !!!, this is the first real set of the festival for me, and one of the first concert experiences for my brother, so we make sure to position ourselves front and center for the show. The band is a pretty exciting dance-punk outfit, and frontman Nic Offer is lively and flamboyant enough to put on a fantastic show. It's good to start out the weekend with a band that is new to me and just enjoy the performance.

3:23 pm: The Sahara tent, the furthest tent from the Outdoor Stage and Coachella Stage, is the dance tent, set up with light fixtures throughout and programmed with mostly electronic outfits and DJs throughout the weekend to keep people raving round the clock. I know Iwon't spend much time here, so when my brother suggests seeing Skrillex here, I take him up on it. As a rule, I think most electronic music is painfully redundant, finding a decent beat and just hitting it repeatedly for 5-10 minutes. It doesn't do much for me from a music standpoint, but then that's not why most people go to the Sahara tent anyway. No one is sitting back, relaxing, and listening to the music in this tent; this is where you go to move.

4: 03 pm: Fleeing Skrillex. I have had my fill of the Sahara tent for the whole weekend at this point.

4:33 pm: Positioned myself near the front at Coachella stage for the first act I am actually excited about. Cee Lo Green is on in 20 minutes, and I think he'll put on a great show.

5:18 pm: Cee Lo finally takes the stage, explaining his flight was delayed and complaining about his shitty time slot. The organizers of Coachella are on a tight schedule, and that means no one is going over their allotted time, especially not on the main stage. Cee Lo gets to play for only 20 minutes. I can't imagine how upset I would be if I had come to Coachella mainly to see Cee Lo. Fortunately for me, while I wanted to see him, he was low on my priority list. He got to play "Crazy" and "Fuck You," and while I actually enjoy some of the deeper cuts off of The Ladykiller those were my only essentials, so I leave the set aggravated but not heart broken. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that Cee Lo ends his set attempting to cover "Don't Stop Believin'" which sounded like it would have been awesome. Unfortunately the organizers cut his mike right after the first line, and cut the band's amps a few chords later. The band kept playing while the audience sand a long (everyone on Earth probably knows all of the lyrics to that song by this point), but Cee Lo just stormed off cursing at the people back stage. I felt his pain, but had to move on to greener pastures.

7:38 pm: Interpol comes on at Coachella stage. Again, I am not a huge Interpol fan and am actually mostly attending their set to ensure that I get a good spot for The Black Keys, who follow them and are assured to put on a great show. Interpol actually plays a solid set though, and is the first band to utilize the jumbo trons around mainstage for more than just showing them playing. I'm glad I saw this set, especially because I was in a great spot for The Black Keys, who played the first great show of the festival.

12:21 am: I know this can be a divisive issue among concert goers, but personally, I always give a lot of credit to a band who has great stage banter. Obviously the focus of any concert is hearing the band's music, and I understand why some people get frustrated when a band spends much of their set talking, especially at Coachella where most bands are confined to a 50 minute set. Flogging Molly, who played on Outdoor, were the closing act of the night, however, and thus had plenty of time on their hands to set frontman Dave King goof around and have a good time with the audience. By this point I'm showing my age, however. I haven't been to Coachella since 2007, and even then I only went for one day. This time I know I have a long road ahead of me, so I spent the last two sets here at Outdoor (Crystal Castles, who were cool, and Caifanes, a Mexican supergroup who didn't do much for me) just sitting down and spacing out, waiting for Flogging Molly, who I counted as essential, to come on. I wish they had played earlier in the day, if only because they were so awesome, and I was barely able to stay standing during their set. They played several songs off of the forthcoming Speed of Darkness which I would have bought anyway, but now am actively looking forward to, and also managed to get in several of their hits. I couldn't stay for the whole set (especially since my brother was basically asleep at this point), but managed to stick it out until they played my favorite of their songs, "If I Ever Leave This World Alive." It was as awesome as I'd hoped, and a great way to close out day one.

Saturday:

1:32 pm: We arrive at the venue for day two. Coachella is a marathon, not a sprint, and Saturday promises to be by far my most packed day, including two times where I am triple booked with bands I hope to see.

2:58 pm: The Tallest Man on Earth takes the stage at Gobi, and literally blows me away. Kristian Mattson is a Swedish singer/songwriter who can most easily be compared to early Bob Dylan, and standing on that stage alone with his guitar (and occasionally banjo) he was more powerful than many of the full bands I saw over the course of this weekend. He is definitely in the running for one of my favorite sets of the entire festival.

4: 20 pm: I stick around after The Tallest Man on Earth for Radio Department, who I haven't heard before. They are also really good. I will have to look into getting their album whence I return to the real world.

5:03 pm: Ok, I will give my father props for Erykah Badu. I know I rip on the musical tastes of my lineage occasionally in this space, but my Dad has been into Badu for a good ten years now, and on this one (if still not Phil Collins) I'll give him credit. She puts on a powerful, soulful performance, which is unfortunately cut off as she is about to end her set. I understand the importance of keeping to the schedule at a festival like this, and I can't fault the organizers for cutting Cee Lo off yesterday (I bet he would've gone on for a lot longer if they hadn't), but Badu was clearly finishing up her set. It's a tough compromise between letting the set end naturally and keeping to the schedule, and I see why the organizers are so dictatorial about the end times of the sets (I know I'd be pissed if everything was pushed back by an hour or so by the end of the night), but I still think a few minutes of leeway should be built into the schedule in future years. Cutting off someone's mike is not the ideal way to end a set, especially not one as relaxed and personal as Badu's, who sings every song as if it was written from pages of her own diary.

6:10 pm: Broken Social Scene comes on at twilight. Nice programming here, Coachella. This is my first crunch time though, as The New Pornographers come on at 6:35 and Elbow comes on at 7:00, so I don't get to stay for the whole set. I do stop by New Pornographers for a few songs (I've already seen them three times, so they aren't as high on my priorities list), but unfortunately miss Elbow trying to meet up with the rest of my group and actually put food in my body. It is shocking how little I eat during this festival, both due to time constraints and because of the crushing heat. When it is this hot outside, I am drinking water constantly, but other nourishment is completely forgotten about until the end of the night when I finally sit down in my car and realize I am starving, mostly because I have starved myself for a whole day.

8:41 pm: Mumford and Sons come on and play a set that is wall-to-wall awesome. I have liked the band for a while now, though they were never my favorites (I have often said that I think Frightened Rabbit does what they do, but much better). This show makes me a much bigger fan though. There is such passion and showmanship in every one of their songs, it's hard not to fall a little bit in love with them. They definitely also make my list for one of my favorite sets of the entire festival.

9:35 pm: I run from Mumford and Sons to The Swell Season, who would also make my list of favorite sets for the whole festival. Glen Hansard is a veteran showman at this point who knows exactly how to read his audience and perfectly mixes the stage banter with playing a set full of excellent songs. "Low Rising," "When Your Mind's Made Up," and "Feeling the Pull" all make appearances and are all excellent. This is one of those sets where you can predict easily what they will close with, yet that didn't even close to effect the power of "Falling Slowly." You could see it coming a mile away, but it is such a perfect song, it is exactly what we all wanted anyway.

10:16 pm: Leave the Mojave tent and head over to Gobi for The Felice Brothers, who are playing a shockingly underattended set. I have never seen the Gobi tent so empty, and despite the fact that I stayed through the end of The Swell Season, I am able to get right up front for this set. The band played a lot of music off of their upcoming album Celebration, Florida, which was cool to hear, but as a huge fan of The Felice Brothers and Yonder is the Clock, I was disappointed not to hear any songs off of those albums (though it is possible I missed them). In all, I expected a much folkier set from the band, who turned out to rock a lot harder than I had anticipated. They played a very solid set, but none of my favorites made appearances and they sounded very different than I had expected. This happens sometimes with live music, though. It can be tough to anticipate what a band will be like live just from hearing their albums.

10:55 pm: I always like to say I think I would like Animal Collective more if I was just really high all the time, but unfortunately I am not, so the band doesn't do much for me. I catch the end of their set, though, as Arcade Fire is up next and I need to be well positioned for this.

11:30 pm: Arcade Fire comes on and blows the doors off the place, playing an amazing set that is pretty much wall-to-wall excellent. They would also be a definite festival highlight, especially with the excellent closer, "Wake Up," during which they dumped a container full of balloons onto the audience. Each balloon was equipped with remote controlled lights, which made for a bautiful sight as the band played probably their most well known song. Fortunately, they returned for an encore, a luxury only afforded to closing acts, and thankfully encored with "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" the one song I was surprised they didn't play. Again, I would have guessed "Sprawl II" as the closer, and it was, but I love the song and the live rendition was amazing, so this was just another example of a band knowing what their audience wants and just giving it to them.

Sunday:

3:30 pm: Arrive at the venue later today for lack of earlier acts. For some reason the early sets on Sunday are incredibly sparse. Maybe the organizers figure everyone needs some sleep after Saturday night.

5:20 pm: I take the lack of acts as a chance to explore more closely a lot of the art that populates the venue, and to finally check out the Beer Garden. Again, it has been so hot out that I was focused solely on hydration rather than libations, but this is my last chance, and being as I am 22 now, it seems like a waste to have made it through Coachella without a drink. I catch some of Nas and Damien Marley while I am in the beer garden.

5:57 pm: Arrive at the Outdoor for Best Coast. Positioning is important on this one, not so much for best Coast (who I do enjoy) but because The National plays next and I want to be as close to them as humanly possible. Best Coast is a lo-fi band, which means they sound incredibly different live. They are much more rock influenced, and the instruments drown out Bethany Cosentino a lot of the time, but they still sound excellent, and Cosentino tells a cute story about how jsut a few years ago she was attending Coachella and now she is playing Coachella, so never give up on your dreams, kids. All in all a solid set.

7:23 pm: The National are definitely one of my favorite current bands, so it is with a lot of bias that I tell you they were one of my favorite sets of the weekend. They opened with "Bloodbuzz Ohio," played "Slow Show," "Fake Empire," "Conversation 16," "Mr. November," and pretty much every other essential song before the phenomenal closer, where Bon Iver's Justin Vernon guest starred on "Terrible Love." Everyone in the crowd was pretty much going insane the entire time, but when Vernon appeared, it was complete chaos. This also lead to my guess that he would guest star later for Kanye's set, which proved to be true.

8:16 pm: One of the toughest things about music festivals is the booking. Nothing is more infuriating than when two bands you want (or even NEED) to see are playing back to back. When I found out Duran Duran was playing this year, I decided they would be a fun set to see, and even bought their new album in preparation. Yet when the schedule was released and I saw they were playing agaisnt The National, it became no contest. Sure, I would have seen Duran Duran, but The National were on my essentials list, so fuck "Hungry Like the Wolf." Fortunately, mainstage was delayed a bit for some reason, and The National ended in time for me to see "Rio" and a James Bond medley that lead into "A View to a Kill." Seeing as those are the only two Duran Duran songs I really care about (I can't say I've ever really been a fan of the band, but I am a huge fan of James Bond movies), I felt particularly lucky to have arrived at that point in their set.

8:44 pm: The Strokes take the stage. It is pretty well known that the band does not particularly like each other (to put it nicely), and lead singer Julian Casablancas was not even present for the recording of the band's newest album, the New Wave-y Angles, instead opting to email his vocals to the band after recording them in an entirely separate studio. Because of this, I didn;t really expect a lot of stage banter, and I was corect. Casablancas was the most clearly inebriated act of the weekend, managing only pretty meekyl to engage with the audience at all, asking things like, "It was fucking hot this weekend, right?" and "You guys here a shit ton of music this weekend?" That didn't matter so much though, as the band played a set full of their greatest hits and without a dud in the mix. Casablancas may have been drunk off his ass, but The Strokes are probably the closest thing we have to a classic "rock band" at the moment, and like the rock Gods that came before him, Julian Casablancas can still put on a great show even if he is fucked up.

10:50 pm: Kanye West quite literally FLIES in to begin his set (on a crane. If he actually has super powers, he's keeping them secret for now), which has by far the best production values of any act at the festival. With a backdrop remniscient of Grecian art and something like 20 back up dancers during the big numbers, Kanye turned the usually relatively low key Coachella into a full on spectacle. Playing most of his biggest songs, including "Dark Fantasy," "Jesus Walks," "Diamonds Are Forever," "Through the Wire," "Golddigger," and "Runaway" before dedicating the show to his mother (who died in 2007) and closing with "Hey Mama," West was a sight to see. Along with guest stars Justin Vernon and Pusha T, a costume change, and motherfucking fireworks (I will rant about my general distaste for fireworks in a more appropriate place, but it was a nice bit of theatricality here), Kanye put on a hell of a show, and made me admit I need to get all of the man's music and catch up on what I've been missing.

So that, folks, was Coachella 2011. Music festivals are a strange (and, don't get me wrong, awesome) phenomenon. People go there ostensibly to hear music (and that is entirely why I for one went there), but I think that live music, especially in the festival setting is about more than that. Music festivals are a cultural experience, even if none will ever reach the mythic heights of Woodstock. They are a chance to leave yourself and your problems behind for a few days and allow yourself to dress in ridiculous costumes or act completely insane (again, neither of which I did). They are a chance to get carried away from your real life, wither by music or by engaging in activities that willfully remove you from your daily experience. So while no music festival will ever live up to the incredibly high hype placed upon them by people who hope to be part of the defining moment of their generation, they do provide something to us. Music, and all art for that matter, is a form of escape, a way for us to be removed from our issues, our concerns, and even ourselves for a little bit, and to see things in a different way. And if music festivals can exist as the embodiment of this escape, as an actual oasis from real life for a few days every year, I think that can be a powerful personal experience, even if it fails to be a transcendant cultural moment. Coachella will never be more than an artifice if you view it (and all associated festivals) as a potential cultural touchstone. I don't know about you, dear readers, but I'd rather have the personal experience than the mark on our collective consciousness any day.


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